Writers as Casualties of Commerce

Since 2009 or so, the so-called midlist at traditional publishing houses has dried up faster than a mud patch in the Serengeti. The bleached bones of writers who did not earn out are scattered around in random configuration. On the parched ground near a scorched femur can be seen a message scratched in the dirt, a last call from a thirsty scribe: Help! My numbers suck!

I’ve heard from many friends and colleagues about traditionally published writers––some who have had relationships with a house for a decade or more––seeing their advances drop to record lows, or not being offered another contract at all.
And then what? What happens to these foundering careers?
Two writers give us answers. The first is Eileen Goudge, a New York Times bestselling author. She had a soaring career in the 1990s, and even a power marriage to super agent Al

Zuckerman. That’s how I became aware of her. Zuckerman wrote a good book on writing blockbusters where he recommended reading Goudge’s Garden of Lies. I did and loved it, and read another of hers a bit later on.

So I was gobsmacked last month when I read a post by Goudgeabout her travails as a casualty of commerce. She describes what happened to her and many other writers this way:
I know from my husband, the aviation geek, that when a plane goes into what’s called a death spiral, as it reaches a certain altitude and succumbs to the pull of gravity, it can’t pull out. The same holds true for authors: fewer orders results in smaller print runs, a smaller marketing budget and lackluster sales, then a smaller advance for your next title, and the vicious cycle continues. In short, you’ve entered the “death spiral.”
The cold, hard truth is this: If the sales figures for your last title weren’t impressive enough to get booksellers to order your next title in sufficient quantities to make an impact, you’re basically screwed. It doesn’t matter if your previous titles sold a combined six million copies worldwide. You’re only as good as your last sell-through.
What’s even more dispiriting is that you’re perceived as a “failure” by publishers when your sales haven’t dropped but aren’t growing. You become a flat line on a graph. The publisher loses interest and drops the ball, then your sales really do tank. Worse, your poor performance, or “track” as it’s known, is like toilet paper stuck to your shoe, following you wherever you go in trying to get a deal with another publisher.
Goudge details some of the things that happened to her, personal and corporate. One of them is fairly common: a key executive or editor who is your champion leaves or gets laid off or moves to another company. You become an “orphan” at the house and your books don’t get the attention they used to.
All these things were “crushing” to Goudge. She says she felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. Every time she got close to something good the ball would be snatched away.
A writer friend of hers told Goudge she should go indie. She resisted at first, but the friend simply asked, “What’s the alternative?”
So Eileen Goudge jumped into the indie waters, more than a bit nervous about it. But then discovered something wonderful:
My creative wellspring that’d been drying up, due to all the discouragement I’d received over the past few years, was suddenly gushing. An idea for a mystery series, something I’d long dreamed of writing, came to me during a walk on the beach in my hometown of Santa Cruz, California, where I lived before I moved to New York City. Why not set my mystery series in a fictional town resembling Santa Cruz? … I immediately got to work. I was on fire!
Goudge is pro enough, and has seen enough, to know that nothing is rock-solid certain in a writing career. But she concludes:
Was it worth it? Only time will tell. Meanwhile there it is, beating in my breast: that feathered thing called hope. Something I thought I’d lost, regained. Something to celebrate.
Hope. I like that. Worth celebrating indeed.
Another casualty of commerce is a friend of mine, Lisa Samson. I’ve known Lisa for fifteen years. She is one of the

most naturally gifted writers I’ve ever met. She’s won numerous awards. She has the respect of critics and a loyal following of fans.

But last month, on or about the same day as Goudge’s post, Lisa posted to her Facebook page:
Dear Friends,
All good things must come to an end, the saying goes. I, however, like to think that all good things continue to evolve. For twenty-two years I have been writing for the inspirational (read: evangelical Christian) market, and it has been an honor and a privilege. True, with the artistic strictures and the increasing necessity for a platform, it has had its share of frustrations for a novelist who simply wants to explore an artform, but sharing stories and getting to know readers as friends, hearing how these words have been used to encourage, inspire, affirm, and even challenge, has been a thrill….
Lisa talks about the changes in the publishing world, how authors are now expected by their houses to do most of the marketing themselves. And then there is the cold, hard economic part:
I was recently offered a contract that was insufficient for me to support my family. A real step down from the previous one. And that is all I will say about that matter. It wasn’t personal, I realize, but it was severely disappointing to have worked faithfully for two decades only to have your work go down in value to that point. I wish money didn’t matter, but it has to, and that saddens me. I’m still intensely grateful for the time I spent writing for that house and the people there who are, quite simply, wonderful. But traditional publishing is a business and I’m no good for the bottom line no matter how much I’m personally loved, and good feelings don’t keep the lights on over here at my house.
Lisa admits to discouragement (as any writer at this point would), but she has a response. She has enrolled in a massage therapy program with the aim of bringing relief to cancer, hospice, and Alzheimer’s patients.
In other words, there is life away from writing. There are other ways to serve in the world. That’s a crucial lesson for all writers to learn. Heck, for any professional.
Will Lisa write again? She isn’t completely closing the door, and my prediction is yes. She’s too good and has too much inside her not to share more stories. But she’s not brooding over it. She is too busy giving of herself to others.
Thus it turns out these two writers are not really “casualties” at all. They are strong and resilient and have chosen brave paths.
So can you. When discouragement hits, as it will, know that you are not alone and that life still offers you options.
Grab one, and go for it.
Have you had a similar experience with discouragement in this crazy writing business? How did you handle it?

29 thoughts on “Writers as Casualties of Commerce

  1. Great post, Jim.

    I’m eager to read about the experiences of others today. I don’t have any experiences to share. I was fortunate enough to find a small publisher that wanted my first book. They may not want me in the future.

    I would be interested to hear, in the future, a discussion of solutions. My wife tells me that men want to “fix” things. I am supposed to simply listen.

    But why not be proactive? Why not look for solutions? Jim, you have convincingly advocated the indie publishing route. Are there other alternatives? Is there strength in numbers? Are any authors forming coops? coops that own small publishing houses or POD publishing houses? Any groups that are joining together to use their clout to get their books into bookstores? Groups working together to put out catalogs for book clubs? Using the strength of numbers for hiring legal advice, book cover design, formatting, marketing, etc?

    We have had every conceivable movement that has led to “rights” for every possible disadvantaged group. I’m not suggesting that we seek a political solution. But is it not time that we start a movement, start working together?

    I once read, in a discussion about the politics of medicine, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Is it possible that it’s time to stop listening and observing, and start “fixing?”

    • There are indeed coops, websites, small publishing concerns, etc. popping up. We’ve seen the start of some ideas that have not worked out, others still looking for solid footing.

      I think simple networking with other writers doing what you want to do is probably the most effective way right now.

  2. Thanks for the post, Jim. There is always something to be learned — and wisdom to be gained — from hearing others’ stories, good and bad.

    I’m intrigued by Steve Hooley’s question and will be curious to see if you have any thoughts on the co-op concept. That’s a question that continues to nag at me.

    I work more on the publishing side of the equation than the writing side, so I’m coming into this discussion from the publisher perspective. I’d been working as a freelance editor for a while when last year I took a job at a start-up small press. At that point, I knew most of the ins and outs of indie publishing, but had plenty of knowledge gaps when it came to the business of publishing other people’s books in order to generate a profit. I’m getting a crash course in the publishing industry — and trying to keep up.

    The conclusion I’m coming to is that there is still a great deal (emphasis on great deal) of room for better options. Traditional publishing is not a good choice for many people, and that’s okay. On the other side of the coin, self-publishing is a lot of work, and overwhelming for many. There are some very good small presses out there, but in some cases may not be much better for an author than publishing with a big house, depending on how savvy that small press is.

    The educated and informed self-publisher is well equipped to control his own publishing destiny, which is a great thing. But the reality is, there are still some resources out there only available to a publishing company with the proper business credentials — out of reach for the average indie author.

    Through my editing work, and friendships, I work with a number of indie authors who are very capable writers, knowledgeable about the system, and motivated to control their success. It would be wonderful to have more resources available to these authors so they have just as many opportunities for success as those backed by a big publishing enterprise.

    My brainstorms are “churning in the Gulf,” as we who live on the Gulf Coast would say during hurricane season. 🙂

    I’m up for being part of a better solution that Steve is looking for and intend to keep working at it.

  3. I can’t speak to the writing part as I haven’t been published yet nor had to go through that, but my hat is off to Lisa Samson because the health care field needs all the caring people they can get their hands on in the coming years.

  4. This, as well as the many other articles I’ve read about the struggling traditional publishing world, has convinced me that my best option as a new author writing my particular subject, is to self publish. There are many people who have done well in the self publishing market and there are many others who are struggling in the traditional publishing world.

    Thanks for sharing. A sad, but informative article.

    • It may be the best option for you, R.A., but don’t forget that some of the benefits of using a traditional publisher–editing, cover design, formatting, and others–now fall on your shoulders and pocketbook. Be prepared to take them all on. Good luck.

    • Thankfully Joe, I can get all those services outside of a traditional publisher. I have a friend who’s a professional artist who already made a cover for me. I have another friend who is a professional editor and is giving me a discounted rate. I can learn code or use Squarespace to make my own website and it’s easy to manage a Facebook page. There are free books and blogposts all over the internet that teach me how to format. There’s also hundreds of resources for learning how to market too, and these days a lot of presses expect you to do your own marketing anyway. Trust me, I’ve done a ton of research on this. 😉

  5. I love that you end with “there is a life away from writing” and that investing in that life isn’t being a failure as a writer.

    About a year ago I had the amazing fortune of having one of my blog posts “It’s Just Books” (I include the title only to give the idea of what the post was about) featured on the Passive Voice blog. I was shocked at the backlash! People were mad that I dared to suggest that I (and by extension, them) have other roles in life besides writer that can be important, too. Maybe people can accept that message better from you!

    What I was experiencing at the time was writerly disappointment related to my expectations of what would happen after I self-published my first novel. While it had gone better than some (perhaps even many), it wasn’t exactly spectacular results, either. It took me another six-nine months to get my balance back, too. The post was the start of seeing the lack of expectation fulfillment not as failure, but as a part of the journey. It made me feel better–validated–that you and other writer’s understand and I’m not just making excuses because things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped!

    • I read your post and found it balanced and honest. Those who pin every single ounce of their quality of life on publishing success are in for a rude awakening. Even those who attain massive success are not usually happy with that alone….life happens in other places, too.

      Thanks for the comment.

  6. I used to hope that I could make a decent living writing. I spent more than 20 years studying the craft in hopes of having a writing career that would at least help pay some of the bills. As Lisa Samson said,” …and good feelings don’t keep the lights on over here at my house.”

    Thanks for this post, Jim. I couldn’t pursue my writing career if I didn’t have my day job. I absolutely love my day job counseling nursing students in a college program. I am grateful for having experienced traditional publishing with a small press, I learned so much, but it’s time for me to move on into the indie world. I don’t know if I’ll be successful or not but at least I’ll be able to experiment with new ideas and keep the fire burning.
    It’s hard though because for all the time I spend writing I have to say “no” to something else and that includes family and friends. It’s not an easy trade off but at least with indie publishing I can work at my own speed (which is not fast) and can help others who need me. I don’t think I’d be satisfied not writing and I’ve spent the last year fighting discouragement. I spent so much time learning the old way of publishing and then just when I think I finally had the correct ducks in a row the silly things swam away.
    I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo now and hoping the next few months will get me back on track. I do have doors open to me for traditional publishing, I just don’t know if it would be worth the effort because there sure aren’t any big bucks involved. I kind of like the idea of running my own business.

    • Ducks swimming away. A new, apt metaphor, Jillian. You are indeed a writer!

      All your efforts over the years have not gone to waste. Everything has prepared you for taking a new direction with eyes open and a professional attitude. Much like Eileen Goudge.

      May the joy of writing and that word, hope, be yours.

  7. Steve,
    So glad you checked out this blog. It’s so worth the time. This gang is so supportive. I appreciate each one of them. And it’s such an honor to know you’ve read my books. Keep on keeping on.

    Jim, as always thanks for the encouragement, guidance, and wisdom. Hanging on to hope for sure. Okay, so now those ducks are swimming in a new direction.

  8. What a great post, Jim. Thank you.

    Many of us have tried traditional publishing and found somehow we didn’t fit. Could have been our quality, subject, luck, timing, whatever. But with little promotion, our numbers didn’t soar.

    So, we moved to the indie side of the street. One writer told me recently, when traditionally published, she still had to do her own marketing, but had no control over things necessary to evaluate each promotion. As an Indie author, she had control and could effectively evaluate her marketing.

    The bottom line, for me anyway, is: Do you love to write? Does crafting a great sentence, paragraph, or scene give you pleasure? As Cyrano said, “When I have made a line that sings itself so that I love the sound of it, I pay myself a hundred times.” If you don’t love to write, don’t find it difficult not to write, it may not be a good thing to pursue. If you do love to write, AND you are paid well for it, WOW. What a bargain. That’s like having a great meal, and getting paid to eat it.

  9. I once had the corner on a non-fiction market–I thought. I was in. The future was bright, rosy, and mine for the taking.

    Except . . .

    I didn’t know my corner was controlled by the dingbat publisher of the world, an editor who believed that control should be exercised abundantly, heavily, and, for heaven’s sake, personally.

    My corner went away. I am extremely grateful that it did. Otherwise, I would have spent decades trying to please an editor who truly was . . . touched, kissed by the the demon muse Control Freak.

    So I gave up my corner, discovering the joy of writing fiction. I may not be making as much money as I could have in the non-fiction world. Yet.

    But I am a lot happier.

    The money will come, whether it’s from writing novels or doing otherwise. And who knows? I may outlive the editor. That would be like Tevya’s dream of sitting by the gate and discussing the Book and the theology: the sweetest of all.

    • During my last trad deal I wanted to make a change with plenty of time to do it. But was told their “system” could not be monkeyed with at that point, it would be “too much trouble.”

      Phooey. With my self-pub stuff I can do what I like, when I like, and make changes whenever I like.

  10. Beautiful post about two beautiful people, thanks so much James. It’s definitely hard to be these two ladies won’t continue to inspire people around them all their lives.

  11. It’s good to see writers branching out and making decisions. It’s sad, though, that this is the state of affairs.

    Not that there’s more indies—I love indies! But the computer ordering system has killed many a book career, and there doesn’t seem to be anything to stop it until you have massive success.

    It makes me glad we live in today’s world filled with exciting possibilities.

    It’s funny Lisa went to writing and then massage therapy. I’ve always wanted to write, but in order to put food on the table I got my license in massage therapy.

  12. I had a productive writing day so I am late to the party again. There is so much I could say on this topic but I can’t quite seem to get my thoughts together. I was a big fan of Eileen Goudge’s books and I had read of her current situation with sadness and even anger. There are many many really talented authors like her right now, some of them good friends of mine. I am not optimistic at all about the state of traditional publishing. But I am hopeful new models will continue to emerge and that change is still possible.

    And yes, part of the answer in the meantime is to understand that there is, indeed, life beyond writing.

  13. Just got back from three days at the Alaska Writer’s Guild Conference, and this was a theme of many of the talks. Change and shifts of reality in the publishing world. The very last author panel this afternoon I got to sit next to four very talented as each of us shared the same basic outlook on the world of words….Keep plugging at, be flexible, and be strong.

  14. Jim, thanks for this post. Things are truly changing, and I feel like the air traffic controller on Airplane who keeps saying, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop smoking (or drinking or whatever).” In my case, I picked the wrong decade to try a career in writing. I’m feeling the ground shifting under my feet from week to week. But it’s nice to know there are alternatives.

    • “….to stop sniffing glue.”

      You made it the hard way, Doc, and the right way. Working hard, being patient, breaking through. But as the post says, even writers of long, long standing are feeling that ground shift now.

  15. JSB–
    “Death spiral” is what characterizes the careers you describe. “Death wish” would seem to be what applies now to legacy publishing. For those of us currently turning away from those who turned thumbs down on us, watching this wish unfold is not without its satisfactions.

  16. Wow. A newbie like me doesn’t always consider that long term pros can actually have problems in the publishing world. Thanks for opening my eyes. I’m glad both writers found new paths.

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